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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 4

Making the Festive Magic Work

by Holly Higgins Jonas / December 1, 2001

Version française...

Lift every voice and sing,” wrote American poet James Weldon Johnson. With the approach of the holiday season, thousands of choirs all over the land are preparing to do just that in their annual Christmas concerts. Conductors and choristers are working harder than ever to produce the glorious music that celebrates the festive season.

Audiences in most towns can look forward to one or more performances of Handel’s Messiah--a perennial favourite. Curious about what really moved them in this masterwork, I asked ten top Canadian choral conductors throughout the country two questions. The first was: “When conducting a performance of Handel’s Messiah, are there any specific sections that especially speak to you or thrill you?” The responses were astonishingly diverse.

Here’s Vancouver conductor Jon Washburn: “My all-time favourite Messiah chorus has got to be ‘Unto us a Child is born,’ which I love for its infectious dance rhythms and the joyous exclamations ‘Wonderful! Counsellor!’ But my reasons are not wholly musical. In December 1964, I was doing my student teaching near Chicago when my daughter was born. After being up all night dealing with that event, I got to conduct a portion of the school’s Christmas concert, including this chorus. The word ‘child’ in this context has had a double meaning for me ever since.”

Diane Loomer, also from Vancouver, loves the beauty, poise, and elegance of the opening “Sinfonia,” followed by the beautiful solo “Comfort ye My people.” She feels the music encourages hope for good things to come and gives a sense of assurance that once again all is right with the world. She also loves the imaginative musical pictures Handel conveys through the orchestral scoring. “Each time you look at the work,” says Loomer, “more is discovered.”

CBC choral concert host Howard Dyck, who directs the Kitchener-Waterloo Philharmonic Choir, appreciates Messiah’s integrity. That’s why he never deletes even a single movement. “The exuberant choruses are exciting, of course,” says Dyck, “but what thrills me most is the serenity of ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ following the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. And at the end, I’m always moved by that holy baroque choral dance, ‘But thanks be to God.’”

Worthy is the lamb

Calgarian David Ferguson had a more oblique approach. “While it’s easy to be dazzled by the melismas of ‘Unto us a Child is born,’ and thrilled by the majesty of the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus, I continue to be impressed musically and moved emotionally by the final choruses of the work, ‘Worthy is the Lamb,’ ‘Blessing and honour,’ and ‘Amen.’ Not only do they present a magnificent blending of inspiration and craftsmanship, they constitute a monumental testament to Handel’s faith.”

Winnipeg-born Brock McElheran, who now lives in Potsdam, New York, agreed with Ferguson, as did Montreal conductor Patrick Wedd. “So much is wonderful in Handel’s Messiah,” says Wedd, ‘but what I find constantly thrilling is the combination of the declamatory ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ followed by the way Handel builds the counterpoint in the ‘Amen.’ It is quite undoing and it never fails to thrill me. Throughout the ‘Amen’ the text is minimal, thus allowing Handel to focus on musical expression.”

The final measures of the ‘Amen’ section are worthy of special mention says Douglas Dunsmore of St. John’s, Newfoundland. “All the imitative entries have one final statement, with the sopranos and tenors on the high A’s cascading towards the final amens, at which point all voices unite in chords sounded together, completing this magnificent chorus and the work itself. There is such a feeling of grandeur, joy, and optimism that it practically lifts me off the podium.” Dunsmore also enjoys a TSM (Truly Sublime Moment) when conducting Messiah’s ‘Pastoral Symphony,’ an instrumental gem offering a few minutes of quiet reflection following the flurry of prophecy, excitement, and awe of ‘Unto us a Child is born.’

Conductor Noel Edison from Elora, Ontario, told me that what speaks to him most in Messiah is the poignant, dramatic, even operatic nature of the four-chorus sequence of “Surely He hath borne our griefs,” “And with His stripes,” “All we like sheep,” and “He trusted in God.” Together they provide an intense theatrical cell within the whole work, he says, and are a marvellous marriage of text and music.

Anything but Messiah?

And now for something different! Here’s the contribution of Paul Murray, Halifax organist and choral conductor. “I don’t care if I never hear Messiah again,” says Murray, “except were I to conduct or accompany it. If you’re asking for a favourite portion, it would be the solemn orchestral introduction, the energetic fugato and the lovely recitative ‘Comfort ye My people’ that follow. That said, I would much prefer to think of choral works other than Messiah. For instance, the Bach Magnificat, Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb or St. Nicholas, or Vaughan Williams’s Hodie. But my mind really dwells on the seasonal carols one finds in various carol books, like Cowley, Cambridge, Oxford, or those compiled by people like David Willcocks. And I never want to be without at least one annual exposure to Sweelink’s Hodie Christus Natus est and Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium.”

Second question . . .

Paul Murray had got ahead of me by answering the second question put to my ten choral conductors: In your opinion, are there any choral works that can rival Messiah as a Christmas season performance?

An overwhelming majority selected the Bach Christmas Oratorio as a worthy alternative to Messiah. This work, explained Noel Edison, is a sequence of six different cantatas centred on Christmas to Epiphany, the twelve days of Christmas in the church calendar. “This is a magnificent work that constantly draws you in at many different levels,” he points out. “It isn’t often performed in Canada, however, as Canadian audiences cling to the English-language family of choral works, thus making compositions such as Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols a popular alternative in the festive season.”

Both Bach and Camille Saint-Saëns wrote a Christmas Oratorio, and these were David Ferguson’s choices. Incidentally, he pointed out that the great popularity of Messiah at Christmas is somewhat ironic because Handel’s first performance of the work was at Easter--and in Dublin, no less!

Pleasing Canadian audiences

Robert Solem of Saskatoon cited Messiah’s “recognition factor” as a big influence in pleasing Canadian audiences, who can anticipate what’s coming next and wonder if the performance will live up to expectations. Solem feels that the Bach Christmas Oratorio contains a heavier intellectual component and that translations from the German language can pose problems. He considers Respighi’s Lauda per la Nativitŕ del Signore a wonderful choral contribution to the Christmas season, and he especially enjoys the soaring soprano solo.

Diane Loomer agreed. “Rarely performed, it contains glorious writing for orchestra and voices, and overflows with tunefulness and the promise of Christmas. It is so Italian, full of tremendous verve and vitality, yet achingly tender at times. It’s one of my all-time favourites, the perfect Christmas card.”

Respighi’s Lauda also got the nod from Patrick Wedd, along with Berlioz’s charming L’Enfance du Christ. But he, like Dunsmore, Washburn, and Dyck, identified the Bach Christmas Oratorio as the closest rival to Messiah: “In this work, Bach allowed himself to compose more descriptively than in his other cantatas. We have shepherds’ music and angels’ music. He wears his emotions more on his sleeve.”

Douglas Dunsmore referred to the work’s wonderfully exciting choruses. He revealed that for Christmas 2002, the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra together with his Philharmonic choir will present excerpts from the Christmas Oratorio alongside Messiah. “That way we hope to have the best of both worlds.”

Jon Washburn’s Vancouver Chamber Choir is considering presenting the Christmas Oratorio as part of a recurring cycle, as it does with Messiah. He views the work as a challenge to the latter’s Yuletide supremacy because it “also tells the Christmas story with alternating sensitivity and celebration.”

Howard Dyck treasures the Bach Christmas Oratorio as much as Messiah. “The music is utterly sublime from first to last, but Bach also reveals a deep, penetrating theological insight that views the joy of Christmas from the sobering vantage point of Golgotha. In his breadth of understanding, Bach is so wonderfully removed from the cheap, easy answers offered by much of contemporary Christianity.”

Choirs sound better with Messiah

The last word goes to Brock McElheran, who was interviewed during a recent visit to Montreal. He stated in his usual succinct manner, “It’s pretty hard to beat the ‘Hallelujah’ chorus. Whenever two or three people are gathered together at Christmastime, they sing it. When conducting it with the full forces you can rest assured that you are thrilling more listeners than with anything else you conduct. When performing ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ through to the end of ‘Amen,’ choirs usually sound better than they do in anything else they ever sing. The persistent ‘ah’ of the ‘Amen’ is like one long voice lesson!

“There’s an astonishing dearth of great Christmas music,” McElheran added. “Messiah’s two chief rivals are, of course, the Bach Christmas Oratorio and Vaughan Williams’s Hodie Christus Natus est. But, in addition to Messiah’s musical and spiritual qualities, generations of choral societies have balanced their budget by programming Messiah. It’s a sure-fire sellout.” p

Participants: Douglas Dunsmore, Howard Dyck, Noel Edison, David Ferguson, Diane Loomer, Brock McElheran, Paul Murray, Robert Solem, Jon Washburn, and Patrick Wedd.

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